---- — By William Bowman
The Daily Item
LEWISBURG -- When Bucknell's four seniors arrived for freshmen orientation in August 2009 they were so excited to start their basketball careers they ditched some of the activities to go play ball.
Four years later the bond created during those pick-up games between Colin Klebon, Bryson Johnson, Mike Muscala and Joe Willman have helped keep Bucknell's long-standing tradition of Patriot League success alive and well.
While senior year seemed lightyears away then, the reality now is that the next loss the group suffers, whether it is tonight in the opening round of the Patriot League tournament or in the NCAA tournament, will be their last as teammates.
"Yeah, I try not to think about that ... at all," said Willman, who will break Bryan Cohen's Patriot League record by appearing in his 131st game tonight. "It's in the back of our heads, but we don't talk about it."
The Bison (25-5) host Navy (8-22) in one of four Patriot League quarterfinals tonight. The winner meets either American or Army on Saturday.
The seniors have grown up together and have had success from the start. They arrived just after the Bison wrapped up a 7-23 season. Since then they have had three consecutive 25-win seasons as well as three Patriot League regular-season titles in a row -- a first in the 23-year history of the Patriot League -- and 88 victories, more than any senior class in the history of the program.
Oh, and all four of them were on the Dean's List in the fall semester, each sporting GPAs of at least 3.5.
Individually they have been stars as well. Muscala, the senior center from Minnesota, will tie Al Leslie's all-time scoring mark with his first bucket tonight and is 29 points away from becoming the first 2,000-point scorer in Bucknell history. Johnson, the sniping guard from Nova Scotia, is the Patriot League's all-time leading 3-point shooter and is two points away from a spot on Bucknell's top 10 all-time scoring list. Willman, a lunch pail forward from New Jersey who complements Muscala inside, is also a 1,000-point scorer.
Klebon, the local of the group out of Southern Columbia, has become a fan favorite near the end of the season. Students chanted his name for a late appearance on Senior Day and he responded with a bucket that ignited the Sojka Pavilion crowd.
"Senior day was rough, no doubt about that, but graduation day is going to be even more difficult," said Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen. "This entire group came in and really bought into what we wanted to do from day one. It was about toughness and focus and embracing the process.
"They came and really laid a foundation of success for us."
Combined, the group has appeared in nearly 450 games with 310 career starts.
"I don't know if any of us envisioned this sort of thing happening," said Johnson. "When we played together in the summer that first year, I think we knew something was possible, but this ... I don't know."